It is a common entrepreneurial dream to create a special place.
This could be a shop, a restaurant, an art gallery, where everyone can enjoy themselves and spend money, especially with their friends and other people they like.
I get this pitched to me almost on a daily basis. A budding entrepreneur has spotted a gap in the market. They are definitely going to address this; all they need is the right property. As soon as this happens, everything will fall into place and people will flock in.
Alas, if only this were true. Finding the right property but in the wrong location can lead to misery and then bankruptcy. I explain that I have a better model, which involves the aspiring entrepreneur test-driving their idea before they get their premises.
First, they need to understand their market; are there other people like themselves, dissatisfied with the way things are done now, and, more importantly, actually willing to pay for something better?
If there are, then they should try out a service model, perhaps first delivering their delicious fairtrade food to busy people in their offices. If you are good at what you do, they will tell their friends. Eventually you will hit a ‘tipping point’: when you have developed a big enough client base, you will be able to attract a proportion of them to your premises.
A perfect example of someone who took this approach is Emma Willis, the only female shirt- maker in Jermyn Street. She started, almost by accident, selling Turnbull and Asser shirts to City boys at their desks. She was very good at this, a combination of charm, glamour, and a willingness to deal with the inevitable power haircuts, loud ties and rampant egos back in the 80s.
Then she discovered something surprising. She was actually really interested in the manufacturing of the shirts. And what was more, she reckoned she could do a better job (a classic entrepreneur motivation).
She became involved in everything: the fabrics, the design, the cutting and the stitching, and ended up buying a South London shirt factory, to secure English manufacturing for all her shirts.
She bought luxurious cottons from Switzerland, and had her own silk woven in Italy, combining the strong English style of make with soft European fabrics, evolving her own individual look, described early on by Vogue as ‘inimitable English style’, at a time when Jermyn Street was simply imitating itself.
Then it was time to set up her own shop. She already had a loyal customer base, the respect of her suppliers and of her competition. A happy customer was willing to become an investor, and Emma Willis Shirts opened on Jermyn Street.
Then Emma discovered something else about herself, a trait I refer to as ‘retail magic’. Everyone serving the public in a shop, restaurant or other public-facing establishment should be polite, helpful and professional. But some also have an extra quality, a genuine empathy for people and a visible delight in service, often characterised by an ability to remember people’s names as well as their buying habits.
She told me that she can spot the characteristics of a customer as they walk through the door: the casual browser or the serious enthusiast; the ones who want to discuss every detail of the shirt or the ones who want to be left alone; and most importantly, the ones who will spend money.
I sensed that Emma’s biggest source of pride is the beautifully appointed shop in a very famous street with her own name over the door; a real sense of achievement and belonging, a place of her own.
Emma Willis opened her Jermyn Street men’s shop in 2000, selling shirts ties, pyjamas, dressing gowns, boxer shorts, cashmere and socks. All her products are made in England, using the most luxurious Swiss and Sea Island cottons and Italian silks.
Her style has been described by British Vogue as ‘inimitable English style’. Emma Willis shirts are also available in Saks 5th Avenue in the United States, Selfridges in London and Le Globe in Tokyo. www.emmawillis.com
This article is a chapter from ‘This Is How Yoodoo It’ – a collection of Financial Times columns written by Mike Southon. You can buy this book in hard copy and in Kindle version here: http://tinyurl.com/YoodooBook